In his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin on Saturday, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates included a display of support for the school's president, Bill Powers, whose job security has been the subject of recent speculation.
"Let me just say here, before the Longhorn nation, how much I enjoyed working with Bill Powers, one of America's great university presidents," said Gates, who was president of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2006 and is now chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "You are blessed to have him as your leader. The best I can wish for all Longhorns is that people like Bill Powers and [former UT-Austin president] Larry Faulkner continue to lead this great university long into the future."
Powers' relationship with the University of Texas System Board of Regents has been rumored to be strained for much of the last year. The situation reached a fever pitch in early May when Texas Monthly's Paul Burka blogged that Powers' job was in jeopardy after he expressed disappointment at the regents' decision to freeze UT-Austin's tuition. Both UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell have denied that Powers' comments have put his position at risk.
Cigarroa, Powell and Powers have been key figures in long-running debate over how to reform higher education in Texas. A hot topic throughout the discussion has been the role of academic research, the value of which some have questioned and others have insisted is a vital piece of the higher education enterprise.
Gates addressed the issue in his remarks, putting himself squarely in the latter camp.
"You have experienced the unparalleled learning that takes place at the University of Texas – learning enriched by the teaching and research that has made American higher education the envy of the world," he told the graduates. "What is discovered in the lab one day is taught in the classroom during the next. This blending of teaching and research makes UT, A&M and all great universities unique incubators of human talent, discovery, and economic development and innovation."